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Two Pennsylvania newspapers win fight for greater access to executions

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Two Pennsylvania newspapers, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Patriot News, won the fight to have greater access to prisoner executions,…

Two Pennsylvania newspapers, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Patriot News, won the fight to have greater access to prisoner executions, successfully arguing that the restrictions put in place by the state's Department of Corrections infringed on their First Amendment right to report.

In the settlement, the parties agreed to allow witnesses to see and hear inside of the execution chamber from the time the inmate enters until he or she is declared dead. The agreement, though, lets the state turn off the audio system should the inmate make any “threatening and/or malicious statements directed toward the witnesses.”

"What the public is doing is acting as a check in monitoring what the government is doing in imposing the most serious criminal penalty,” said Stephen Shapiro, an attorney representing the newspapers.

Attorneys for the publications listed actions from the Capital Case Procedure Manual that they wanted to be changed. This included the portions of the procedure that take place behind a curtain, such as transporting the inmate into the execution chamber, inserting catheters into the inmate’s arms and covering the inmate with a sheet up to his or her neck.

Attorneys argued that this prevented witnesses from viewing a number of things such as the inmate’s demeanor, the amount of force required to strap the inmate down and whether or not there are any complications during the catheterization process.

They pointed out that since the inmate is already “immobilized” and covered by the time witnesses first see him or her, they are “unable to see whether the condemned is exhibiting physical symptoms of any complications arising from the initial procedures."

The curtain would be closed and a person would check to see that the inmate had lost consciousness. After that was determined, the team would once again open the curtain to administer the lethal drugs. "In other words, witnesses to an execution are prevented from observing the procedures conducted to ascertain whether the condemned has, in fact, been rendered unconscious by the barbiturates."

Under the former protocol, the curtain would be closed when the coroner enters the chamber and pronounces the person dead. The protocol also prevented witnesses from hearing what is happening inside of the chamber.

There are currently 191 people on death row in Pennsylvania. The state has carried out three executions since May 1995.